Royal jellies

posted by Sophia Tintori / on February 17th, 2010 / in History, Jellies

Emperor Hirohito was a man who wore many hats. Most famously, he was Japan’s head of state during World War Two. As emperor, he was the stoic and elegant embodiment of Japan. But he was also a family man, a poet, and a marine biologist.

Hirohito had the Imperial Biological Laboratory built for him when he was 24, which was substantially upgraded three years later when he became the emperor. It contrasted the rest of the Imperial Household in the plainness and usefulness of its furniture. Plain furniture, such as a trash bin made out of a trophy elephant leg.

He would steal away every Saturday afternoon and most Thursdays when he could, to his lab where he would meet with other biologists to identify and describe the species that they had dredged up from the surrounding waters. He had a gentle touch when working in the field. If collecting from a colony of polyps, he would take only a small bit of each colony and would put the rock carefully back in place, so as to let the rest thrive.

After the war he published 32 books of plates, describing some 23 new species of ascidians, 7 new species of crabs, 8 new species of starfish, and 6 new species of pycnogonids. He conducted the first comprehensive survey of the biodiversity of Sagami Bay, but he was particularly well versed in the tiny tentacled polyps that grew on the sea floor, called hydrozoans. All of his work was published under the name ‘Hirohito Emperor of Japan.’

At the top is a photo of Emperor Hirohito with his wife, whose hat is making her look a bit like a hydrozoan herself. Next down is Emperor Hirohito in the Imperial Laboratory, from E. J. H. Corner’s article about Hirohito’s scientific career. Below that is an illustration of a nudibranch (left) from Opisthobranchia of Sagami Bay (1949), and an illustration of a coral (right) from The Hydrocorals and Scleractinian Corals of Sagami Bay (1968), by Hirohito Emperor of Japan. Below is a photo of Emperor Hirohito in Kurume, also in 1949.

Solar Powered Sea Slugs

posted by Freya Goetz / on February 8th, 2010 / in molluscs, Symbiosis

The slug pictured above, Elysia chlorotica, is a symbiont thief.

Elysia chlorotica eats the alga Vaucheria litorea but does not digest it. The slug cuts open algal filaments and sucks out the contents, transferring the living chloroplasts to its own tissue. Chloroplasts are organisms that have lived symbiotically within plant cells for many millions of years. They harness energy from the sun, which they give to the plant or alga cell they live within. Most animals digest the chloroplasts entirely when they eat plants, but not Elysia. By keeping the chloroplasts intact and transferring them to its own tissue, Elysia allows them to continue photosynthesizing, producing energy for the slug. The slug can then live for months without eating as long as sunlight is available, and can maintain the same chloroplasts for its entire adult life. This is an extremely unique relationship between an animal and plant symbionts.

Many other animals form associations with photosynthetic organisms. Corals such as the one depicted below have a symbiosis with multiple single-celled organisms called zooxanthellae. This is a multiple-level symbiosis because corals house the entire chloroplast-containing zooxanthellae cells within their tissue. This is different from Elysia chlorotica, who has cut out the middleman — instead of incorporating entire  cells, it only retains the chloroplasts.

The upper photograph (of Elysia chowing down) was taken by Nicholas E. Curtis and Ray Martinez. The second photograph is courtesy of Mary S. Tyler, and was the cover of PNAS when this paper was published. The lower picture is the coral Porites as photographed by Casey Dunn. You can watch two amazing videos of the slugs in action, here and here, both of which were included in the PNAS paper.